Introducing the Scaling Product Management From Series B to IPO Series

March 21, 2023

It’s not easy to scale product management (PM) teams effectively. When a company scales from Series B to IPO, product management leaders must shift from hands-on product oversight toward building an organization and product development system that enables each individual PM (and the teams they work with) to do consistently great work.

So how do you effectively scale the PM system as it becomes more challenging to maintain consistency and alignment across teams?

Lessons from scaling journeys past

I’ve scaled product management teams, both at startups and established companies. At SendGrid, I built and coached a team of 31 product people as the business grew, and ultimately got acquired by Twilio. When I joined GitLab back in 2019, I was tasked with tripling the size of my team (that was 15 people at the time) in my first nine months, and guided that team through GitLab’s IPO.

Over these scaling journeys, I bore witness to many successes—but I also saw a lot of things break along the way.

Red flags: How you know PM isn’t scaling effectively

Scaling a product management organization is never an easy process, particularly as your team grows in size and complexity. How can you tell when things are going awry? These three signs could be an indication:

  1. Your users are reporting an inconsistent product experience: Maybe you noticed your net promoter score (NPS) suffering, or the quality of your UX is declining. These could both be signs of a struggling PM org.
  2. There are distinct differences in individual PMs’ performance and skills: When you have one PM performing well and another performing poorly, you’ll see inconsistent results across teams. Your company may be lacking a PM coaching and career development framework.
  3. You’re keeping a chaotic product backlog with little strategic adherence to deliverables: A lot of times, early stage product teams get whipsawed around, receiving lots of feedback without a targeted process to address it. If you don’t have a really strong strategic direction, you can end up with a backlog that’s all over the place.

Some other signs include:

  • Your product has missed deadlines, failed launches, and lack of business results.
  • Your teams don’t effectively collaborate across functions.
  • Your CEO or executive leadership is micromanaging people on the product team.
  • Your priorities are coming directly from sales, engineering, or a small handful of large customers.
  • You have high rates of attrition in product and engineering.

To scale, think in systems, and start with principles

It helps to think of the entire product development organization and its processes as a big system. Prioritize fixing the things that will give you the most leverage. That way, you can gradually improve your product management system as you scale and ensure that it functions at a high level.

PM leaders who are product visionaries and domain experts often get all the attention. The most successful product companies, however, thrive because they have great teams of PMs, developers, and designers who are all doing great work—and the impact of their work ripples throughout the entire business.

Successful tech companies like Amazon have a very specific way they expect their teams to work. When teams across an org can follow a consistent way of working, you create a reliable system that continuously adds value.

It’s up to the leadership to create and define these systems. And that starts with first principles. At GitLab, the first thing I did as an incoming Chief Product Officer was communicate a set of principles that I expected the product organization to reflect over time.

From there, we gradually improved various aspects of the system, always with a view to the base principles. Enabling the team requires a combination of training, coaching, and documentation. When your system is implemented effectively, everyone on the team understands what’s expected of them and have the tools they need to do their job.

With time, you’ll be amazed at the progress you can achieve. When the bar is high, you can plug in a new product manager, and they can do great work with very little ramp up time. This creates positive momentum that drives the entire product development process forward.

Introducing the series

In this five-part blog series, I’ll be doing a deep dive into each of the following PM topics:

Hiring, career development, and performance

I’ll go through how to run a rigorous hiring and role prioritization process. Specifically, I explain how to test candidates for their systems thinking skills and what hiring benchmarks are recommended for structuring your teams.

I’ll also walk you through the career development framework I rely on to train and retain top performing product managers. Promoting development—while also being able to have hard conversations with reports when appropriate—is necessary to raise the bar for PM performance.

Establishing a customer-first org

When scaling product management from Series B to IPO, customer focus means employing a clear problem-and-solution-validation process. This ensures that you’re only building things that your users care about—and not wasting limited time and resources building things they don’t.

In the second part, I’ll dive into how to conduct customer interviews and how to leverage that knowledge with a product development validation track.

Optimizing growth and pricing

Great product teams tie their product strategy to the company’s go-to-market strategy. And for product led growth companies, the onus is on the product organization to optimize for customer acquisition, conversion, and retention in the product experience. You need to instrument and mirror the full user journey—from awareness to sign up to onboarding to hitting that ‘aha’ moment—in order to identify drop offs and fix them with growth optimization projects.

Also, just like product features, pricing should be updated and optimized on a regular schedule. In this third installment, I’ll discuss all of the above and more—including my value-based pricing philosophy and my approach to conducting pricing research.

Product vision and strategy

A successful PM org whose business is ready to IPO isn’t working in fire-fighting mode. They have a short-and-long-term vision for product excellence—and a solid plan for achieving it. In the final installment of this series, I’ll guide you through my three biggest tips for long-term planning, prioritization, and working with other functions.

Don’t miss the next installment

For the latest insights and stories about product management—and to get the next installment of this series sent straight to your inbox—subscribe to the OpenView newsletter and connect with me on LinkedIn.

Product Advisor

Scott Williamson is a Product Advisor, helping B2B SaaS companies scale their products through periods of high growth. Most recently, Scott was Chief Product Officer for GitLab, where he led a team of 65 in Product Management, Product Operations, Growth, Pricing and Corporate Development functions. Prior to GitLab, Scott was VP of Product for SendGrid over a six year period, where helped lead the company to a successful IPO and $3B acquisition by Twilio. Scott lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two teens. Outside work and family, Scott enjoys training for and competing in Olympic distance triathlons.